Microsoft Garage: Making a Difference

 |   Kenny Spade

The Microsoft Garage is a resource to all employees that supports and encourages problem solving in new and innovative ways. The Garage attracts people who are passionate about making a difference in the world. This leads to some amazing opportunities, such as our partnership with Microsoft Philanthropies and Citizenship. Three of my favorite events we partnered on this year were visits from Girls Who Code, the non-profit engagement during the One Week Hackathon, and the visits to local schools and afterschool programs to provide students with an Hour of Code.

2017 marked the third year that we hosted Girls Who Code‘s Summer Immersion Program, a seven-week program that gives young girls an opportunity to build computer science skills they’ll be able to take with them to the future. The Garage makerspace was one of the first stops the students were able to experience, and it got things started off on the right foot. The girls in the program were inspired to bring the maker spirit in everything they built, even inspiring a couple of teams to use 3D printing and IoT concepts in their final projects. My favorite project from the group was a game that was built to be played without the aid of sight. The team incorporated braille into the laser cut enclosure that housed their project and featured two big buttons that would help the player navigate a choose your own adventure style piece of interactive fiction. The team needed a bit of help with getting the Raspberry Pi running their code that they had written in Python but were excited to make their project work.

2017 was also the second year that Microsoft’s company-wide One Week Hackathon included a Hack for Good component. Based on the success of the previous year, this time around teams were encouraged to hack alongside their non-profit partners. We hosted two matchmaking sessions to connect non-profits to Microsoft employees that were excited to solve some problems. Through these sessions, twelve projects were launched and worked on during the event. One of these projects was a partnership with Benetech that aspired to make textbooks more accessible through a machine learning system that would be able to identify mathematical equations. Recently, we heard from the non-profit that they were able to acquire funding for a pilot this year that would start with digitizing five books, and see where they could go from there.

Since 2013, Microsoft has been a proud partner in Code.org’s Hour of Code, bringing students exposure to programming. Over the years, more and more schools have adopted computer science education. This year, we worked to find locations that would benefit from our training sessions, and hosted workshops at De Marillac Academy in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Peninsula in Redwood City, and Ocala STEAM Academy in San Jose, a City Year partner school. While the organizations and locations differed greatly, the one thing they had in common was that the students were incredibly excited to participate and learn. The workshop invited students to write code for the BBC micro:Bit, a microcontroller with a five by five array of LEDs that can be lit up in response to the code the students write. For a generation that grew up with smartphones and tablets, it was incredibly rewarding to see students showing each other the patterns they made appear and teaching each other the code they used to make it happen.

We continue to evolve our programs and partnerships, learning from past years to determine our direction for the future. Judging by our momentum in the past few years and the amazing results we saw in 2017, this year is going to be great.

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Kenny Spade

Kenny Spade wrote his first computer program when he was nine years old and he has focused on technology ever since. Kenny loves to share knowledge and build new things, so you’ll often find him at hackathons, both as an attendee and presenter of whatever new technology he is tinkering with. In his free time, he dabbles in game development and hardware hacking.